The morality of doubt: The religious skeptics of seventeenth-century Venice

Table of Contents:

by Edward Muir

Gabriel Naudé, one of the forefathers of the French Enlightenment, famously claimed that seventeenth-century Italy at the height of the CounterReformation was “full of libertines, atheists, and people who believe in nothing.”1 The “people who believe in nothing” were primarily members of the Venetian Academy of the Unknowns, many of whom the Frenchman had met while studying at the University of Padua, which was a hotbed of free thinkers. The liberty of the Unknowns depended on their founder and patron, Giovanni Francesco Loredan (1607-1661), a member of one of Venice’s most prominent patrician families. Loredan himself was usually circumspect about his personal religious beliefs, but his private secretary, Ferrante Pallavicino (1615-1644) was not. A popular novelist and historian, Pallavicino was the most extreme papal critic and religious skeptic in seventeenth-century Catholic Europe. The nephews of Pope Urban VIII took Pallavicino’s writings so seriously that they hired a secret agent to lure him away from the safety of Venice to papal Avignon, where he was executed at age twenty-eight.

Soon after his death someone, probably Loredan himself, penned The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino, the most virulent attack on the church to come from the circle of the Unknowns.2 The conceit of the book is that the soul of the deceased Ferrante Pallavicino returns to earth one evening to carry on a conversation with an old friend named Henrico who may have been a stand-in for Loredan. In their dialogue, Ferrante and Henrico feed off one another’s skepticism as might happen in a real conversation between two like-minded friends:

“We find reasons to conclude why the infidels and the heretics have had occasion to laugh at our religion, while the abuses and scandals make it totter ... The upright judgment they have made can be shown in the capitals of Christianity, which are full of all kinds of debauchees, gamblers, whores, transvestites, thugs, and of every enormous vice. How can they believe the faith of Christ to be the truth and unique when they see all the Catholics lead the life of atheists? How can they believe that the sacrament of the Host is the true, immaculate body of the second person of the Most Holy Trinity when

The religious skeptics of Venice 293 they see that our temples are not full of the devout but of lovers; when they see no respect, less even than in the square for street performers.”3

The two friends cite one simple fact that seemed to prove their point. The Council of Trent established penalties for many sins, including fornication. However, “it is laughable that the church has prohibited fornication, but then the pontiffs have tolerated many thousands of prostitutes, indeed taxed them ...to take the earnings from the trade.”4 These criticisms of papal corruption were standard fare in Protestant countries, but Loredan and Pallavicino were not Protestants. Their thoughts were far more subversive, and had they lived in a Protestant country, they would certainly not have been tolerated. In The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino they questioned the immortality of the soul and the sovereignty of God, the very foundations of Christianity.

Henrico asks Ferrante how it is that souls, which are without bodies, can be subjected to physical penalties after death, the torments of purgatory and hell so often described in sermons and depicted in paintings. To render souls capable of feeling physical pain, they must have organs, but if after death souls can feel pain without a body, then there was no need for God to have given them bodies in the first place. Henrico posits that the only solution to the problem is to reject the belief in suffering souls after death and to accept that the only real punishment after death is the deprivation of divine grace. Henrico’s position, of course, is an assault on the doctrine of purgatory and the entire apparatus of penance administered by the Catholic Church. Pallavicino’s wandering soul, however, disagrees. Many theologians have argued as has Henrico, but Pallavicino reports that bodily death is much worse than the deprivation of salvation. Without life one does not have the capacity to comprehend the state of glory from which one has been deprived by the loss of grace. In other words, the recently executed Pallavicino claims that the living only imagine salvation because they do not want to lose life.

Pallavicino and Henrico move on to discuss the Last Judgment: “And it is very true and constant that men do not sin with the intention of offending God but to satisfy their appetites; they are not made less guilty by punishment, which is incompatible with the infinite mercy of God.” Infinite mercy is infinite. Despite this evident truth, the Christian religion has become a thing of fear, “indeed even the fear of a madman.” The only way to eradicate the madness of Christianity, therefore, is to recognize that “men have the ability to establish laws over God.”5 That is a radical claim. If humans can impose laws on God, then what is God? Does he have any influence, let alone power, over human events? Pallavicino’s soul, speaking from the beyond in the conceit of the book, has taken the Christian promise of divine salvation and turned it on its head. The whole scheme, not just of penalties imposed by the church but of divine judgment itself, contradicts the Christian claims of God’s infinite mercy. Morality does not require God. Human laws can guarantee morality better than belief in God. This, in the end, is the strongest claim of the “people who believe in nothing.”

Notes

  • 1 Quoted in Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: La teoria dell'impostura delle religioni nel Seicento italiano, revised edn., Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1983, p. 6. Translated by Edward Muir.
  • 2 Anonymous [Giovanni Francesco Loredan?], L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino, Villafranca [false place of publication, the real location may have been Amsterdam or Geneva]: s.n., 1643. Translated by Edward Muir.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 65.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 80.

Map

SPAIN

ATLANTIC

OCEAN

Finland

LAND

Moscow

Unburgh

IRELAND

RUSSIA

• Copenhagen^

Dubi

Lithuania

ENGLAND

POLAND

Kiev

Krakow

Podojia

FRANCE

• Bordeaux

Venice»^

Avignon

Black Sea

Madrid

Barcelona

Rome

Granada

Algiers

hen§

Palermo

Mediterranean Sea

Paris 1 Nantes

North Sea

DUTCH REPUJJJC

Wallachia Bucharest^

• Naples

NAPLES AND

Belgrade

Servia ^^gagusa

<7 THÉ' c

і Cologne Saxony

EMPIRE

Buda®*Pest

Hungary

•Berlin ~ J Warsaw

Bohemia

Bavaria r~

Munich» »Viel

Europe after 1648

List of contributors

Irena Backus: Professor of Reformation History and Ecclesiastical Latin, Institut d’histoire de la Reformation (Institute of the History of the Reformation), University of Geneva, Switzerland

Robert J. Bast: Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA

Jill Bepler, PhD: Former Head of the Fellowship and Conference Department, Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Alan E. Bernstein: Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

James Blakeley: Professor and Chair, Department of History, St. Joseph’s College New York, Patchogue, NY, USA

Curt Bostick: Professor of History, Department of History, Sociology, and Anthropology, Southern Utah University, Cedar City, UT, USA

Lynn A. Botelho: Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA, USA

Katherine G. Brady: Master of Arts in Religion, Columbia University, lives in Berkeley, CA, USA

Thomas A. Brady, Jr.: Peder Sather Professor Emeritus of History, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

Helmut Bräuer: Professor Emeritus of History, University of Leipzig, Germany

Monica Brennan: Professor Emerita and Chair Emerita, Department of History, St. Joseph’s College New York, Patchogue, NY, USA

Michael W. Bruening: Associate Professor of History, Department of History and Political Science, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, MO, USA

Amy Nelson Burnett: Paula and D. B. Varner University Professor of History, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA

Euan Cameron: Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History, Union Theological Seminary, New York, and Professor, Department of Religion, Columbia University in the City of New York, NY, USA

Robert Christman: Associate Professor, Department of History, Luther College, Decorah, IA, USA

Victoria Christman: Associate Professor, Department of History, Luther College, Decorah, IA, USA

Michael Crawford: Associate Professor, Department of History, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, LA, USA

David Cressy: George III Professor of British History and Humanities Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, and Research Professor of History, School of Arts and Humanities, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA, USA Pia F. Cuneo: Professor of Art History, School of Art, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Barbara B. Diefendorf: Professor Emerita, Department of History, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

Irene Dingel: Professor of Church History and the History of Dogma, Faculty of Protestant Theology, Johannes Gutenberg University, and Director, Department Abendländische Religionsgeschichte,’ Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz, Germany

Kathryn A. Edwards: Professor, Department of History, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA

James M. Estes: Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

S. Amanda Eurich: Professor, Department of History, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, USA

Andrew Fix (f): Charles A. Dana Professor of History, Department of History, Lafayette College, Easton, PA, USA

Peter Foley (f): Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies and Classics, and Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Richard L. Gawthrop: Honorable Roger D. Branigin Professor of History, Department of History, Franklin College, Franklin, IN, USA

Bruce Gordon: Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Yale Divinity School, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Kevin Gosner: Associate Professor of History and former Chair, Department of History, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Andrew Colin Gow: Professor of History, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

David Graizbord: Associate Professor, Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Kaspar von Greyerz: Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History, University of Basel, Switzerland

Berndt Hamm: Professor Emeritus of Modern Church History, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany

Craig Harline: De Lamar Jensen Professor of Early Modern History, Department of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA

Sigrun Haude: Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA

Randolph C. Head: Professor, Department of History, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA, USA

Scott H. Hendrix: Professor Emeritus of Reformation History and Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, USA

Siegfried Hoyer: Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History, Department of History, University of Leipzig, Germany

Milton Kooistra: PhD in History, University of Toronto, lives in Williamsburg, ON, Canada

Craig Koslofsky: Professor, Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL, USA

Nicole Kuropka, Dr. habil.: Pastor in Wuppertal and Lecturer at the Kirchliche Hochschule in Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany

Marjory E. Lange: Professor of English and Humanities, Department of English, Western Oregon University, Monmouth, OR, USA

Ute Lotz-Heumann: Heiko A. Oberman Professor of Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies and Department of History, and Director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Karin Maag: Professor, Department of History, and Director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Ml, USA

Scott M. Manetsch: Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL, USA

Thomas B. de Mayo: Associate Professor of History, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Richmond, VA, USA

Raymond A. Mentzer: Daniel J. Krumm Family Chair in Reformation Studies, Department of Religious Studies, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA

Paul Milliman: Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Cornelia Niekus Moore: Dean Emerita, College of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA

Edward Muir: Clarence L. Ver Steeg Professor in the Arts and Sciences and Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, Department of History, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA

Graeme Murdock: Associate Professor in European History, Department of History, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

Christopher Ocker: Professor of Church History, San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, CA, and Chair of the Department of the Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, USA

Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer: SusanC.Karant-NunnProfessorof Reformation and Early Modern European History, Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies and Department of History, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

Allyson M. Poska: Professor of History, Department of History and American Studies, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA, USA

Helmut Puff: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein Collegiate Professor of History and German, and Director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Jonathan A. Reid: Associate Professor, Department of History, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, USA

Catherine Richardson: Professor of Early Modern Studies, School of English, University of Kent, Canterbury, England

Bernard Roussel: Directeur d’études (Director of Studies), Sciences religieuses (Religious Studies), École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, France

Ulinka Rublack: Professor of Early Modern European History, and Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England

Heinz Schilling: Professor Emeritus of Early Modern European History, Department of History, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

Anne Jacobson Schutte (f): Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

Tom Scott: Honorary Professor, School of History, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland

Michael S. Springer: Professor of History, Department of History and Geography, and Director, Office of High-Impact Practices, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, OK, USA

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger: Rektorin, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin), and Professor of Early Modern History, Department of History, University of Münster, Germany

Ulrike Strasser: Professor, Department of History, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

Larissa Juliet Taylor: Professor, Department of History, Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA

Nicholas Terpstra: Professor, Department of History, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

B. Ann Tlusty: Professor and Chair, Department of History, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA

James D. Tracy: Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

J. Jeffery Tyler: Professor and Chair, Religion Department, Hope College, Holland, MI, USA

Joel Van Amberg: Professor of History and Chair, Department of History and Museum Studies, Tusculum University, Greeneville, TN, USA

Günter Vogler: Professor Emeritus of German History, Department of History, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks: Distinguished Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA

Gerhild Scholz Williams: Vice Provost, Barbara Schaps Thomas and David M. Thomas Professor in the Humanities, and Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, USA

Heide Wunder: Professor Emerita of Social and Constitutional History of the Early Modern Period, University of Kassel, Germany

Charles Zika: Professorial Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia

 
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